Dhankar Monastery and the confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers
Dhankar Monastery and the confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers

In the local language of Spiti Valley, Gompa means a monastery. Dhankar Gompa is also an old monastery like others in the region. Belonging to Gelugpa sect, it probably dates back to 12th century. 25 kilometers from Kaza, towards the road to Tabo, there was a diversion for Dhankar Gompa. It was situated on a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Few hundred meters below the Gompa, there was Dhankar village. In the Dhankar village, there was the same pattern of white houses with step farms in between. In the local language, Dhankar means a fort on a cliff. Near Dhankar Gompa, there were other structures too like a fort. Do not compare it with the usual forts that you have seen. Built on the cliffs with a small area at the top, forts in the Spiti Valley are bound to be small. It would have been very difficult to transport materials for building a big fort at such height and so far-removed from traditional population centers. Also, the number of persons that these forts had to host was small. Once upon a time, the Spiti kingdom was ruled from Dhankar. Inside the Gompa, near the entrance, there was a chamber of protecting deity. Supported on the pillars from inside, Dhankar Gompa also houses a small museum.

There is a lake near Dhankar village. It is a high-altitude lake named after the village. The way to Dhankar lake starts near the guest house. We decided to trek. The trek was, by no means, easy. Although, it was not too long and was not too steep, but at the heights above 4000 meters ,if one has not become used to thin air, then such treks are difficult. The water of the lake was very clear - so clear that you can see the reflection of hills on the opposite side. Half of the lake was shadowed by the hills and that shadow was increasing. Sunset was approaching. There was a small Pagoda-like structure near the lake and the beautiful colorful prayer flags around that. The pattern of thorny bushes near the lake was interesting. If you would see the barren land you would say no vegetation is possible here but then you would see these bushes artistically sprinkled here and there.

Returning from the lake, the lunar-shaped village of Dhankar and the Gompa were seen in the background of the confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers. This scene was the nature’s imagination at its best. It looked like the picture coming straight from the artist's canvas. In the valley below two rivers met and decided to continue their journey together peacefully forever. In the valley above, men met the religion in search of the peace. Men came to the abode of enlightened Lamas to be guided in their spiritual journey and the fire of knowledge was kindled in their souls. Men came to the Gompa, dwarfed by the high mountains and unable to move out for months in snowy winter. Men climbed the cliff to recite a verse in the worship of Avalokiteśvara. When men met religion in its true sense, it was like men met nature. The peace was established in these unapproachable mountains. That peace and tranquility are what attract the travelers today.
There is this thing about sunrise and sunset in the Himalayas. Because of high mountains on both sides of the valley, it is very difficult to see the sun rising. When you can actually see the sun, till then it is already a bright day. So a sunrise does not have the feeling of light fighting the darkness or slow spread of the light in all directions. I remember being awake in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand once to see the sunrise but when we had the first glimpse of sun, the day had already begun. The beautiful thing about sunrise in the Himalayas is the reflection of sunlight on snow-clad mountains which is reddish in color. This we had witnessed in Kaza and a few years back in Ukhimath, Uttarakhand. Like the sunrise, sunset also is different from the sunset that one is used to seeing. The sun hides behind mountains well before the first shadow of darkness creeps in. By the time we reached Dhankar Lake, a portion was covered by the shadow of mountains. This shadow only became larger. One starts to feel the chill. After sunset, the strong and cold winds take over.

While going to Tabo from Dhankar Village we saw few flex boards outside the fences surrounding trees. Seeing such tall trees was a surprise in itself. The location of Spiti Valley is such that the Monsoonal clouds do not cause rain here. The Harsh climate and small population mean a large area remains without any vegetation cover. Throughout our journey in the Spiti Valley, we did not see any place where you see grasses, bushes, or trees as you normally see elsewhere in the Himalayas. Those flex boards had details about the Desert Development Schemes of the government. Later when I searched about this, I got to know that governments are spending crores of rupees for this scheme. It creates a green cover and provides employment to the local people.
Dhankar Village
Dhankar Village
Dhankar lake
Dhankar lake
Spiti river from Dhankar Monastery
Spiti river from Dhankar Monastery


Buddha statue in Langza village
In the second part of this series of travelogues on Spiti valley, I said that I will talk more about remembering and experiencing. Normally, we do not separate these two aspects. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about two selves - experiencing-self and remembering-self. Experiencing-self lives in the moment and remembering-self keeps those moments in the memory. That is what we cherish after a long time. What Kahneman says is that we focus more on remembering than on experiencing. To prove the point he says that we are blind towards the time-integral of happiness or sadness  caused by a stimulus. Say, you are moderately happy or sad for a year in one condition. In the second condition, you are extremely happy or sad for a month. It is more probable that five years hence, you will remember the second condition. We humans are too prone to peaks in happiness or sadness. This is the background for the discussion that I intend to take up in this part of the series. If we are to remember only peaks of happiness or sadness why do we want to live a well-settled life which does not contain surprises? The things which we normally call surprises are expected surprises - a contradictory term but yes, that is true. Where should we invest more time and resources - in remembering or in experiencing the moments?

While visiting few villages near Kaza, this struggle between my two selves got worse. When you see those mountains, villages in a valley and a small road disappearing under a hill you become awestruck at once. There is a feeling of being mesmerized. After few days you do not remember all those experiences exactly. You only remember that there was something which was very beautiful but when you try to remember what was it exactly, you are left to find words and memories, searching for those moments. Here comes the question again - if we cannot remember those feelings, should we stop on hill trail and think about the surroundings? People prefer the remembering-self and that might be the reason behind why tourists as soon as reach a place, start clicking pictures without even seeing the place fully. There is a feeling to capture all those moments into some sort of mechanism where it can be taken out of the memory black-hole again, and again. Pictures are one such mechanism. I have assumed that people prefer the remembering-self. At least that is what see around on a trip. That would be a generalization. I leave it up to you to decide on your next trip whether you feed your experiencing-self or remembering-self.

13 kilometers from Kaza, there is a small village - Langza. With a population of around 130, this village is first that one encounters while coming from Kaza. There are two parts of the village - Lower and Upper Langza. Lower Langza is near the fields and is few meters below the road from where you see the village. The Upper langza was closer to the big statue of Buddha. In this village and most of the other that we passed by while coming to Kaza, the outer decoration pattern of the houses would remain same. The houses will be painted white. That white color is somewhat worn out maybe because of six months of snowfall or maybe it was painted a few years ago. At the point where the walls met the roof, there would be a strip painted gold or brown. When you see from a distance a row of similar houses, you can wonder about their coherence to a tradition. The Buddha statue was considered to be hundreds of year old by the villagers. The location of the statue was good. It was placed there overlooking the village, then farms, then roads and then the tall mountains of Spiti village. On the internet, I found that Langza village is famous for marine fossils which are found in abundance here. I did know this when I was in the village. Few kids brought something to sell near our vehicle. We thought that these were small craft items and gave it a pass. With the benefit of hindsight, I think they might have been the fossils. 

Next, we went to the Koumik village. It was one of the highest inhabited villages in the world. Few claim it to be the highest one but that is disputed. The village is situated at the edge of a deep canyon. There were few farms and few houses in this village. While roaming around in this village, we met a person who has invited us inside his house for the tea. We were also curious to see the house from inside. The house had all the provisions for long snowy winters such as a small fireplace in the drawing room and thick mud walls. Most of the villagers had gone to bring back the yaks from the other side of the hill. Our host was studying in Shimla and was there in his native village for few days. He said he would leave before the snowfall starts. I remember one more interesting thing about him. Whenever we would ask him how much time will it take to walk to a hill, he would say, for example, that one hour for him and three hours for us. That was true but we found it interesting that he already took account of our difficulties at high altitude. We enjoyed his hospitality. It does not happen that frequently in India when few strangers are allowed in one's house.

Tangyud Monastery is situated in Koumik village. Along with the monastery at Kaza, it is one of the few monasteries of the Sakya sect left in Spiti valley. Like other monasteries in the region at Key and Dhankar, Tangyud Monastery is also a fortified structure, suggesting that in ancient times there were attacks on monasteries or that religious head was also the ruler of the country. Tangyud Monastery is made up of mud walls and boundary is in a rectangular shape. Inside the monastery, you find all those colorful objects which we saw in other monasteries in Spiti. Built in the 14th century, it is one of the highest monasteries in India. 

The last village that we visited was Hikkim. Hikkim village contains the highest post office in the world. That post office is manned by an old employee of the postal department. There were many colorful cards with images of the places in Spiti. He was enthusiastic enough in showing us those cards, but it was difficult for him to find a plain postcard - a relic of the gone era. I thought that I will add a new ritual to my trips - to send a postcard from that place. I started that from Hikkim. That post card never reached home. I tried again from Pondicherry. Even that did not reach home. I thought that it is now outdated to send a postcard. Even the postal department might think that a person is not serious enough in communicating something if he is sending a one-rupee postcard. Hikkim village is also the world's highest polling station.
Near Langza village, Spiti Valley
Near Langza village, Spiti Valley
Inside Tangyud Monastery, Koumik
Inside Tangyud Monastery, Koumik
World's highest post office, Hikkim
World's highest post office, Hikkim


चलते चलते लहरें सहसा रुक गईं
तेज चलती हुई हवा थम गई चुपचाप
आपस में गुँथे हुये सब पहाड़
ढीले होकर देखने लगे आकाश
उड़ते हुए रेत के कण किनारे से देखने लगे
रास्ते सब मुड़कर आने लगे झील की तरफ़
चहकते हुये जीवों की सब बोलियाँ छीन ली गईं
और तब उस क्षण झील की एक लहर जागृत हुई।

और सोचने लगी
कि क्या जन्म और पुनर्जन्म की व्याख्या उसके लिए भी है
क्या किनारे के पत्थरों से बार-बार टकरा जाना
पिछले जन्मों का परिणाम है
या आगे आने वाले जन्मों के लिए एकत्र की जा रही जमा पूँजी है,
क्या उसका मचलना,
उसका सूरज की किरणों में नाचना,
ये सब वह खुद कर रही है
या कर्ता कोई और है, वह बस निमित्त मात्र है,
उसको यह भी जिज्ञासा हुई
कि उसके जीवन की समीक्षा कैसे होगी
रोज एक ही कार्य निर्विकार रूप से करने पर,
निरंतरता के लिए प्रशंसा होगी
या बार-बार दोहराने पर
मौलिकता के अभाव के लिए आलोचना होगी।

उसने अपने चारों तरफ देखा
और खुद से पूँछा
कि क्या वह सुन्दर दृश्य में बिंध जाने के लिए
पहले से तय एक भूमिका निभा देने के लिए ही है बस?
कभी खुद तय करके किसी धारा में बह पायेगी वह?
उसे पहाड़, हवा, रास्ते, रेत के कण
सब की दिनचर्या अपने जैसी लगी
और उनसे उत्तर पाने की उम्मीद खोकर
वह और भी निराश हो गई।

इन गूढ़ प्रश्नों के उत्तर लहर को
न मिलने थे और न मिले,
रास्ते फिर चलने लगे दिशाहीन
जीव फिर से आवाज पा गए और निरर्थक कुछ कहने लगे
पहाड़ों ने फिर से लहरों को घेर लिया
रेत के कण फिर उड़ने लगे तमाशा समाप्त देखकर
हवायें फिर से पगलाकर सरसराने लगीं
और लहरें फिर चल पड़ीं होकर उदास।

मगर चलने के पहले
एक लहर मेरे पास आ गई
और तपाक से बोली,
"तुमने फिर से मुझमें अपनी छवि खोज ली न ?"


Kye Monastery, Spiti Valley
Kye Monastery, Spiti Valley
In and around Kaza, we met many foreigners. Near the main monastery in Kaza, we met a group of Israeli tourists who came to India after their compulsory conscription was over. This is the trend with tourists from Israel as we saw in Kasol too. While talking to one of them we got to know that he had plans to go to Rishikesh. He was in India for a month. He told that “You work between two trips. That is how you live.” In Kaza, there were programs to know more about the culture of Spiti valley. Not only know that as in reading somewhere but living those experiences. For example, there was a program where you can live like a Buddhist monk for a day and get to know more about Buddhism. 

We got to know these things by a list of such programs handwritten a medium-sized slate outside a small cafe. The cafe was not bigger than an average grocery shop in an average Indian city. To inquire more about these programs we went inside. To my utter surprise, this program was conducted by a lady from the Netherlands. A tailor-made tour of an Eastern cultural practice by a Westerner who came to India for a month. That’s what it was. She was there with her husband and her little son. I hardly meet a person from India who goes to travel for a month. So I am assuming that it is not too common. Maybe those who come to India from outside come with a plan of a month or so. If they do not have sufficient time, they may prefer places in their own country or in nearby countries. 

The local market of Kaza was similar to the market that we see in hill stations of the Himalayas. Wooden crafts items like key chains, cutlery, and showpieces, were in abundance. Being a hill station it was common to see shawls and other winter clothing. Spiti valley is not too much known to the outside world as compared to Ladakh, but it is getting popular. The Greater number of visitors brings the diversification of market and the options increase like for dining. I wish that Spiti valley remains what it is - serene, secluded and less crowded by visitors. 

Back in the hotel, there was a dining-room-cum-cafe. There we talked to the owner of that hotel Mr. Tsering Bodh. While deciding on the best route to Kaza, we chose the one via Rohtang La as it was closer to Kaza from Manali. The other one was from Shimla which was part of Hindustan Tibet Road. As we had asked a contractor in Batal, we asked Tsering which one was better. He told us, "If you see the quality of the road, definitely Hindustan Tibet Road is better as it is well kept. The road from Manali to Kaza is not very good and some parts of the road are very bad, but this road offers you more diversity. You cross passes, see rivers and pass through places where there are no roads. Compared to this the road from Shimla is monotonous." We agreed with him. A journey is not only about arriving. A lot has to be experienced in the travel itself. In that hotel, there were encyclopedias dedicated to the Spiti valley. We got to know few things about the history of the valley. Also kept were the collections of photographs taken in Spiti valley, hard bound like an old epic. Indeed it was epic, where the picture is shown and verses have to be formed by you. 

In the hotel, folk music was being played. Being a fan of the folk music of India, I asked Tsering if he could share the songs with me and he obliged happily. When I returned from Spiti Valley, I played those songs. Needless to say that I could not get the lyrics of most of the songs as they were in the local language of Spiti valley, but music is much more than the language. It is about the experience when those instruments are played in harmony. It is about feeling the ascent and descent of the voice of the singer and then sink in that. Few of those songs were religious in nature as I deduced from the repeated chant of 'Buddham Sharanam Gachchhami, Dhammam Sharanam Gachchhami.' This is the feature of the folk songs of North-Indian Plain too. Most of the folk songs are about deities or a historical hero. Tsering told me that few songs are recordings of the festivals that are celebrated in the Kaza or nearby villages. 

About 15 kilometers from Kaza, Kye monasteries is situated. Variably pronounced as Ki, Key, and Kee, Kye monastery is considered to be more than a thousand years old. When you enter the monastery, there is a board which has details of the history of this monastery. The history tells us about the repeated sacking and looting of this monastery by different forces. This monastery had to change its affiliation to a sect when it was attacked by a more powerful sect patronized by Mongol kings. Belonging to Gelugpa sect today, this is a major place of learning for young Lamas who have to go to Tibet for higher studies in religion. The Kye monastery is situated on a hilltop. In the backdrop of high mountains this monastery and related settlements, look so small and it is a perfect symbol of the harmonious relationship between man and nature. While on the roof of the monastery, you can get the panoramic view of the valley and it needs to be said that the views from each side of the Spiti river in the valley complete each other. This whole picture looks so poetic that I should call nature a great poet. 
Spiti Valley from Kye Monastery
Spiti Valley from Kye Monastery
Top of the Kye monastery
Top of the Kye monastery
Inside Kye Monastery
Inside Kye Monastery


Sunrise in Kaza, Spiti Valley
Sunrise in Kaza, Spiti Valley
In the morning, we could see the golden sunlight on the mountains on the other side of the Spiti river. Kaza is a small town located 200 km from Manali and 427 km from Shimla via Nako. The district 'Lahaul and Spiti' comprises of two Tehsils - one headquartered at Keylong and the other at Kaza. Keylong also serves as the district headquarter. There are high mountains on both sides of the valley. In the valley, Kaza town is located and the Spiti river flows in the valley. You can find amenities like ATM or petrol pump only in Kaza after Manali in this route. At the petrol pump, we also saw a signboard mentioning that it is the highest petrol pump in the world. I think on this trip we got used to the adjective 'highest.' A peak, a petrol pump, a post office or a village can be the highest in the world or among the highest. Given the proximity of places from here, to visit in Spiti valley Kaza can be made a base camp if a long stay is planned in the valley.

While seeing towards the mountains on the other side of the valley, there was something different from the previous day. It was the snow which was covering the greater part of the mountains than it did on the previous day. Our driver had told us yesterday that if it would rain like this for the whole night, then the temperature would drop and we might have snowfall in the night. I did not know the exact science behind the snowfall, so I believed him thinking that his experience in the hills might enable him to predict correctly. The very next day we got to know that there was snowfall in the night. I thought more about this incident. Very often we consider such things against science and deem them to be trivial and is not based on solid logic. In the Bollywood movie Swades, Shahrukh Khan is working with NASA and tells that his work is concerned with meteorology. Then he is ridiculed by villagers for that as even a layman from the village can tell when will it rain just by seeing the sky.

Now, here we assume that the layman is not a scientist. When we observe closely we can see that he is following the scientific methods unknowingly. The moment we place science as something practiced by highly trained professionals, we lose the essence of science. Any discipline or work which uses the scientific methods to reach a conclusion is a science. It raises a question now - what is the scientific method. I will not go into details of scientific method here, but broadly any work where you think of a hypothesis and then do experiments to verify your hypothesis can be called to be a scientific method. Remember, this is only a broad definition.

A layman predicting the weather is based on the knowledge passed on for many centuries. Observation tells him that a particular pattern of clouds and a combination of temperature and wind causes rain. If this cause-and-effect relationship proves wrong too many times, then this has to be changed. Some other relationship between those environmental factors will take its place after being tested by too many persons for too many years. That is how the science works - the science that we have been taught, the science that takes its form in laboratories. Had it not been a science, there would have been a discussion on whether the observation is right or wrong, but only observation, in this case, is either it rains or not. So if the theory of the layman goes against the observation too many times, he has to change his theory or he has to come with a theory which can explain the anomalies. And, here it can be distinguished from the arts where there is no clearly defined hypothesis to be followed in order to produce a beautiful piece of art.

In the morning, we had visited the monastery in Kaza. Compared to other monasteries in the region, it is not very old. It was blessed in 2000 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In that monastery, we saw few patterns which will be found in all the monasteries in the region and in monasteries beyond the Spiti Valley like one in Dehra Dun. First, the monasteries were very colorful from the outside and inside. Rarely you will find so many colors in the places of worship of other religions. The art in sculpture is seen in the Hindu temples but it is a different matter here with the colors. Well, the Gopurams of Meenakshi Temple in Madurai can be the exception. Second, in these monasteries, a big picture of a religious teacher is kept like of Dalai Lama and is given a place which is reserved for the deities in temples. Hinduism has its own tradition of deifying the religious preachers but that is not as universal as it is found here in these monasteries. There we had a talk with a monk, in their language a Lama. He told us that this monastery belonged to the Sakya sect of the Buddhism. We came to know that there are different sects of Buddhism alive in Spiti valley and they have separate monasteries. Even then, the Dalai Lama is such a towering figure that he is respected by almost all the sects. We waited for the morning prayers in the monastery. It was a sober affair. Three Lamas chanted sacred verses and at fixed intervals they would beat the drums, blow the trumpets and play the cymbals. We were served tea there and I took it as Prasad served in temples, although, I am not sure if monasteries have a tradition of distributing Prasad.
View of Kaza town
View of Kaza town
Lawns of the monastery in Kaza
Lawn of the monastery in Kaza
Inside the monastery in Kaza
Inside the monastery in Kaza